It is easy for a jazz pianist to become bottled up in a piano-centric world, completely oblivious to the other instruments that exist. This is normal. Pianists tend to see their instrument as the end all be all of instruments; the top of the mound, the king of the hill, the ace in the deck. Throughout history, keyboard instruments have been the ones used to develop theory, develop voice leading, and write symphonies! Solo piano is one of the oldest “complete” genres of jazz, dating back to the inception in New Orleans. In fact, some, like myself, would argue that the language of jazz developed in great part due to the efforts of pianists James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Nat Cole (surely, the list goes on). As a budding young pianist, I had a piano-centric view of the universe; ignorant and unable to acknowledge anyone who wasn’t a descendant of Oscar Peterson, my personal hero. I would listen to solo piano, piano duos, and, of course, piano trios. Any combo larger than three people was too large for me. Yes, the piano is great, and, yes, the piano has played a very significant role in sculpting the form of modern music, but let us remember hubris is the deadly Greek flaw.
Each instrument has a unique sound and mechanism. The combination of these two things, not surprisingly, guide the player in a certain natural direction. For example, jazz professors (and seasoned jazz veterans in general) make a huge ruckus about needing to leave space in a solo. A piano player, who does not need to breathe to play his instrument, can begin to play gratuitous lines, while a horn player will have to leave natural space to breathe (barring circular breathing!). Thus, looking outside the scope of your own instrument is important. Take J. J. Johnson for example. As an up and coming trombonist in the world of bebop, he was faced with a unique dilemma. Bebop was a developing language all about flash and trying to out play the other player, and the trombone was an awkward instrument to play fast and complicated bebop lines on. Still, wanting to sound like Charlie Parker, who was playing an instrument made for fast playing, he took that inspiration and transformed the instrument completely.
I soon realized this importance, and after escaping from the piano bubble I built for myself, came to find inspiration in many different instrumentalists and a few singers. One instrument I am very influenced by is the guitar. While the guitar is a chordal instrument like the piano, it is much less limited, in an expressive sense. You can bend, slide, ghost notes, and use vibrato in ways impossible on the piano. I’m always disappointed when I try to use vibrato on the piano and it doesn’t come out, but I hope that the way I approach it does something to my overall sound. One guitarist I listen to for this expressive way of playing is Kurt Rosenwinkel, who comes up with the most interesting clusters and lines. He uses the guitar more as an extension of his voice, and on some recordings you can hear him singing along quite loudly (on his recording of “If I Should Lose You”, he even sings the words at one point in the background). Another favorite is Allan Holdsworth, whose technique is simply impeccable, but he does not sacrifice musicality for gratuity (as I write this I’m listening to “Non Brewed Condiment”, which is a difficult but gorgeous melody). I also listen to lots of trumpet players. Of course, I include Miles on the list. He’s one of the few cats who can take one note played in quarter notes and use it to define the tone of his solo, the groove, and the time (for a classic example, listen to the first three notes of his solo on “Freddie Freeloader”). I’m always trying to emulate the way he plays the blues with that simplicity and dark tone. Then there’s Clifford Brown, the trumpet player’s Art Tatum. Out of all the great qualities possessed by Clifford, the one I find most inspiration in is his clarity. Clifford’s first big gig, like so many of the great trumpet players, was with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and playing with such a rhythmic powerhouse, along with innate talent, surely had something to do with his rhythmic prowess. I’ll close out this list with someone who is often taken for granted by the general public, Frank Sinatra. In my opinion, if you want to learn how to swing and lay back, listen to Sinatra religiously. He has recorded some of the most in the pocket melodies in the history of the language.
To be sure, there are many, many more to name, but, I would love to hear back from any of you guys out there in Indaba land with musical influences you take from outside your instrument or comfort zone- please feel free to comment below.